Picture Perfect Sewage

Green Point is one of the oldest suburbs of Cape Town, looking over Table Bay in the Atlantic Ocean. Set below the Signal Hill Nature Reserve, Green Point is a popular tourist destination and yearly has thousands of people flocking to this charming suburb filled with trendy restaurants, shops and hotels, and the iconic Cape Town Stadium built for the 2010 World Cup. The coastline around the City is a popular jumping off point for surfers, swimmers, divers, kayakers and ocean enthusiasts to experience the joys of the ever changing sea.

What many people don’t know is that this picture perfect place in our ocean receives about 55 million litres of macerated sewage discharged daily beneath the waves via a long underwater pipeline.

I have been fortunate enough to have access to the Atlantic ocean for the last 20 years. Kayaking has been one of the most amazing recreational outdoor activities I have enjoyed. … I just love the freedom and peacefulness kayaking brings. But what I love the most is being able to enjoy the most incredible wildlife encounters.” Tracy Fincham, resident of Three Anchor Bay, Cape Town.

But over the years people have been seeing and smelling sewage, and kayakers, surfers and swimmers have come forward with instances of falling ill after using the sea recreationally off the Atlantic seaboard. Kayakers and divers reported occasional, huge floating ponds of human excrement offshore from Cape Town, and after several acquired serious gastroenteritis after practicing their kayak rolls, they started asking questions.

“Sometimes if there is a sewage leak, there is raw sewage, not even broken down, floating on the surface, on these days we try to avoid it, or I simply abandon kayaking, the smell is just too nauseating.” Tracy Fincham, kayaker from Three Anchor Bay

“I guess I’ve always known about the outfalls. I know we pump sewage into the sea. But, like everyone else, I always assumed it was treated first and that it was safe going into the sea.”

Jean Tresfon

“I guess I’ve always known about the outfalls. I know we pump sewage into the sea. But, like everyone else, I always assumed it was treated first and that it was safe going into the sea.”

Jean Tresfon

Marine Outfall Pipelines

Unlike the other 20 waste water treatment plants (WWTs) around the peninsula, the marine outfalls provide for a preliminary treatment facility only.

Read more

This means that sand and grit is first removed, then the sewerage goes through a series of mesh screens, which then sieves out the larger items such as nappies, plastic, rags and sanitary goods. The macerated sewage is then pumped into the ocean via an underwater pipeline about a kilometer or two off shore at a depth ranging from 20–30 meters.

The City of Cape Town states that the pipelines are ‘designed to withstand wave actions and possible damage from ship anchors, and they have a diffuser at the end of the pipeline that helps to disperse the waste’. The marine outfalls are labelled ‘deep sea’ but they are not very far from shore. Sewage from Camps Bay is fairly “pure” in that it comes mainly from residents and local businesses, like restaurants. According to experts, the shape of the bay in Camps Bay retains the sewage from the outfall.

Is Dilution the Solution to Pollution?

Eye in the Sky

Jean Tresfon, photographer and gyrocopter pilot known for his beautiful aerial shots of the Cape Peninsula, has been instrumental in generating public awareness of sewage pollution in some of the bays around Cape Town.

He has been flying his gyrocopter two or three times a week around the Cape Peninsula for years, taking photos of marine wildlife, including sharks, tuna, whales and big shoals of game fish.

Through his regular marine survey flights, Tresfon often noticed and photographed large plumes of brown or milky white water on the sea surface, always in the same areas, off Green Point, Camps Bay and Hout Bay. He says the plumes are getting worse every year.

What he was seeing was the sewage and grey water that is released into the ocean via City of Cape Town managed marine outfalls. Tresfon’s photos made many Capetonians sit up and notice as most still don’t know that about 55 million litres of raw, untreated sewage and greywater is pumped into the ocean off Green Point, Camps Bay and Hout Bay every day.

He shared his photos on social media in 2015 and it went viral. The issue ended up on the front page of most newspapers and other media and generated controversy that continues to the present day. Realising the power of his photos, Tresfon continues to photograph trouble spots and share these images to show the scale and context of coastal water contamination around Cape Town.

I want the public to be aware of the problem, otherwise, it remains out of sight and out of mind.” John Tresfon

In the process he has come to know many of the scientists and other concerned citizens working on the issue, such as water pollution consultant Professor Jo Barnes, University of the Western Cape water treatment expert, Professor Leslie Petrik and public health expert Professor Edda Weimann

I was horrified that 55 million litres of raw, untreated sewage and grey water is pumped into the ocean everyday via the outfalls. I discovered, with the scientists’ input what a disaster this is”.  John Tresfon

See more about waste water treatment of Cape Town here.

Eye in the Sky

Jean Tresfon, photographer and gyrocopter pilot known for his beautiful aerial shots of the Cape Peninsula, has been instrumental in generating public awareness of sewage pollution in some of the bays around Cape Town.

He has been flying his gyrocopter two or three times a week around the Cape Peninsula for years, taking photos of marine wildlife, including sharks, tuna, whales and big shoals of game fish.

Through his regular marine survey flights, Tresfon often noticed and photographed large plumes of brown or milky white water on the sea surface, always in the same areas, off Green Point, Camps Bay and Hout Bay. He says the plumes are getting worse every year.

What he was seeing was the sewage and grey water that is released into the ocean via City of Cape Town managed marine outfalls. Tresfon’s photos made many Capetonians sit up and notice as most still don’t know that about 55 million litres of raw, untreated sewage and greywater is pumped into the ocean off Green Point, Camps Bay and Hout Bay every day.

He shared his photos on social media in 2015 and it went viral. The issue ended up on the front page of most newspapers and other media and generated controversy that continues to the present day. Realising the power of his photos, Tresfon continues to photograph trouble spots and share these images to show the scale and context of coastal water contamination around Cape Town.

I want the public to be aware of the problem, otherwise, it remains out of sight and out of mind.” John Tresfon

In the process he has come to know many of the scientists and other concerned citizens working on the issue, such as water pollution consultant Professor Jo Barnes, University of the Western Cape water treatment expert, Professor Leslie Petrik and public health expert Professor Edda Weimann

I was horrified that 55 million litres of raw, untreated sewage and grey water is pumped into the ocean everyday via the outfalls. I discovered, with the scientists’ input what a disaster this is”.  John Tresfon

See more about waste water treatment of Cape Town here.

Marine Outfall Pipelines

Unlike the other 20 waste water treatment plants (WWTs) around the peninsula, the marine outfalls provide for a preliminary treatment facility only.

Read more

This means that sand and grit is first removed, then the sewerage goes through a series of mesh screens, which then sieves out the larger items such as nappies, plastic, rags and sanitary goods. The macerated sewage is then pumped into the ocean via an underwater pipeline about a kilometer or two off shore at a depth ranging from 20–30 meters.

The City of Cape Town states that the pipelines are ‘designed to withstand wave actions and possible damage from ship anchors, and they have a diffuser at the end of the pipeline that helps to disperse the waste’. The marine outfalls are labelled ‘deep sea’ but they are not very far from shore. Sewage from Camps Bay is fairly “pure” in that it comes mainly from residents and local businesses, like restaurants. According to experts, the shape of the bay in Camps Bay retains the sewage from the outfall.

Is Dilution the Solution to Pollution?

Testing the Waters

Whilst much of the attention has been focused on microbial contamination from sewage, and measurements of E. coli and Entercoccus as indicators of pollution levels, scientists and researchers have shown they are no longer the biggest threat, but the presence of increased amounts of persistent pharmaceutical and chemical contaminants.

In 2017, in a study done by a team of six; Leslie Petrik, Jo Barnes, Lesley Green, Cecilia Sanusi, Melissa Zackon and Adeola P. Abegunde indicated the presence of dangerous toxic compounds in marine organisms, that could only come from human sewage.

Their lab test results found in the seawater, a range of high-schedule drugs, and multiple household chemicals, many of which were endocrine disruptors and carcinogens.

The huge population increase of the City comes with a growing amount of detergents, disinfectants, antiseptics, shampoo, toothpaste, deodorants, dyes, pesticides, paint, medications like antibiotics or painkillers, herbicides and weed killers, stimulants like caffeine that are daily going into the sewers from domestic, light industry, hospitals and commercial operations in the city and suburbs. All these products contain toxic chemicals that do not break down readily in the environment.

All 15 compounds that were tested for were found bioaccumulating in the filter feeders at the shoreline: starfish, sea urchins, seaweeds, limpets, mussels.

Read full study here.

That means if we looked for more we would likely have found them. In other words, 100% of what we looked for, was found. That is truly frightening, not only because of the scope of chemicals, but the unknowable: how are they interacting with one another? What new compounds might be forming? For these reasons, chemical pollution is a focus of international agreements like the Stockholm Agreement.” Lesley Green

Chemical profile indicating the chemical compounds and pharmaceuticals in the marine organisms and seaweed in Greenpoint

Desalination Blues

In 2017 and 2018, the City of Cape Town (CoCT) faced an unprecedented drought, after 3 years of low rainfall. At the end of the rainy season the rainfall levels were the lowest in recorded history, and far lower than even the most highly rated climate science lab had foreseen.

A feasibility study was requested for the emergency desalination plants proposed for Greenpoint, Cape Town, located next to the same marine sewer outfall that pumps 40 million litres of raw sewage and effluent into the ocean.

Photo: Leslie Petrik

In addition to physical damage to the filters from pollution, there are are major toxins — bacteria and persistant organic pollutants in sewage, that can’t easily be removed via desalination.

“Desalination is very expensive and not designed to remove persistent pollutants, nor viruses; merely salt. Our own studies published by the Water Research Commission of South Africa of four of the waste water treatment plants in the greater Cape Town area showed that, depending upon the configuration of the plant and the contaminant load, only a certain amount of the load of persistent contaminants are removed to some extent from the effluent waters by the waste water treatment plants. Hence, a desalination plant would not solve the problem of persistent contaminants nor the viral load in the sea water to be purified for drinking purposes. Producing potable water from the polluted ocean could present a significant health hazard unless the correct tertiary treatment stages are incorporated into the design.” Professor Leslie Petrik, Environmental and Nano Sciences, Dept. of Chemistry, University of the Western Cape

The paper published through to the South African Journal of Science in 2017, made the case that molecular compounds in the seawater, from the sewage outfalls, represented a public health hazard. In other words, Cape Town’s oceans are too polluted for desalination to be viable.

Chemical profile indicating persistent organic compounds in seawater in Greenpoint.

Upgrade of the Greenpoint outfall

Upgrade of the Greenpoint outfall — Cape Times 19 March 1931 (National Library of South Africa)

Where it all begins…

  • 1888 After a Parliamentary committee condemns the state of sanitation in the City, the City appoints British engineers to recommend solutions. Two solutions emerge, an outfall at the mouth of the Salt River, or a more expensive ‘broad irrigation’ land plan.
  • 1905 Despite considerable opposition to the marine outfall option, delays, and rising costs, the Green Point marine outfall is completed in 1905.
  • 1910s Within a decade, the City receives numerous complaints from residents of Mouille Point and Sea Point which draw attention to intolerable smells, and the presence of sewage on the rocks and beaches around the outfall.
  • 1920s The City’s medical officer records unusually high rates of Typhoid in Mouille Point and Sea Point which he blames on sewage pollution from the outfall. Residents of Mouille Point and Sea Point threaten the City with legal action if nothing is done to remedy the situation.
  • 1931 The outfall is extended to 640 metres and a pumping station is installed at Mouille Point.
  • 1962 After severe corrosion leads to numerous leaks in the pipeline, City Engineers recommend its replacement and further extension. A complete oceanographic investigation is recommended to ascertain if it is desirable to continue using the outfall. This survey is completed in 1970.
  • 1986 After pressure from the Department of Water Affairs, who warn that levels of contamination in the ocean pose a serious health hazard, a new flexible polyethylene pipeline costing R13 million is completed in 1986. City officials state it will last at least 50 years.
  • 1989 The flexible polyethylene pipeline is broken in multiple places by a winter storm. The City Council commissions new research on sewage disposal, investigating both sea and land disposal.
  • 1990 Land based treatment is again rejected, and a 1700m outfall is recommended.
  • 1993 A new R30 million pipeline is completed. This pipeline continues to pump 40 million litres of untreated sewage into the ocean every day.

What this account of the development of the Green Point outfall reveals more than anything else is the remarkable consistency in the Council’s approach to the disposal of sewage. At no point since its completion in 1905, has the Council seriously considered an alternative approach”. Neil Overy 

Overy’s research goes on to describe how the narrative clearly features the problem of technological lock-in. As the costs of the outfall, the pipeline and the pump station accumulated, it became increasingly difficult to abandon it in favour of alternatives. 

Since the system was constructed the city has grown astronomically, and the systems just cannot handle the volume of sewage. Sewage is an unfortunate by-product of urbanisation, but the City Council has persistently trusted the ability of the sea to make sewage disappear. 

Even in 1895, City Engineer Olive states ‘it is pretty generally accepted that raw sewage cannot be disposed of anywhere without risk of nuisance … it is certain that at some future time it will make its presence felt’.

Greenpoint 1955

How we got here

The story of our city sewage outfalls goes back over 100 years. Neil Overy, historian working with the Department of Environmental Humanities at University of Cape Town has been gathering the stories through available archives about the history of the Greenpoint marine outfall pipe.

Neil’s research clearly shows that the City of Cape Town consistently made economical, and not ecological decisions. There was very little long term vision of a healthy city, stretching back over a century.

It is impossible to quantify what the accumulated costs (financial, environmental, social) of the outfall have been since the decision not to build a sewage farm in 1895.”  Neil Overy

Map of Proposed Pipeline

Plan of proposed scheme for sewerage and sewage disposal for the Municipality of Green Point and Sea Point, South Africa, 1891 (scheme proposed by Engineer C. Dunscombe). University of Cape Town. Libraries. Special Collections. Cape of Good Hope Parliamentary Papers

Faeces on the beach

Alleged Sewage Pollution of Beach: JW Yolland versus City Council, 1929. Photographic evidence for March 1929 Supreme Court Case (Cape Archives).

How we got here

The story of our city sewage outfalls goes back over 100 years. Neil Overy, historian working with the Department of Environmental Humanities at University of Cape Town has been gathering the stories through available archives about the history of the Greenpoint marine outfall pipe.

Neil’s research clearly shows that the City of Cape Town consistently made economical, and not ecological decisions. There was very little long term vision of a healthy city, stretching back over a century.

It is impossible to quantify what the accumulated costs (financial, environmental, social) of the outfall have been since the decision not to build a sewage farm in 1895.”  Neil Overy

Upgrade of the Greenpoint outfall

Upgrade of the Greenpoint outfall — Cape Times 19 March 1931 (National Library of South Africa)

Where it all begins…

  • 1888 After a Parliamentary committee condemns the state of sanitation in the City, the City appoints British engineers to recommend solutions. Two solutions emerge, an outfall at the mouth of the Salt River, or a more expensive ‘broad irrigation’ land plan.
  • 1905 Despite considerable opposition to the marine outfall option, delays, and rising costs, the Green Point marine outfall is completed in 1905.
  • 1910s Within a decade, the City receives numerous complaints from residents of Mouille Point and Sea Point which draw attention to intolerable smells, and the presence of sewage on the rocks and beaches around the outfall.
  • 1920s The City’s medical officer records unusually high rates of Typhoid in Mouille Point and Sea Point which he blames on sewage pollution from the outfall. Residents of Mouille Point and Sea Point threaten the City with legal action if nothing is done to remedy the situation.
  • 1931 The outfall is extended to 640 metres and a pumping station is installed at Mouille Point.
  • 1962 After severe corrosion leads to numerous leaks in the pipeline, City Engineers recommend its replacement and further extension. A complete oceanographic investigation is recommended to ascertain if it is desirable to continue using the outfall. This survey is completed in 1970.
  • 1986 After pressure from the Department of Water Affairs, who warn that levels of contamination in the ocean pose a serious health hazard, a new flexible polyethylene pipeline costing R13 million is completed in 1986. City officials state it will last at least 50 years.
  • 1989 The flexible polyethylene pipeline is broken in multiple places by a winter storm. The City Council commissions new research on sewage disposal, investigating both sea and land disposal.
  • 1990 Land based treatment is again rejected, and a 1700m outfall is recommended.
  • 1993 A new R30 million pipeline is completed. This pipeline continues to pump 40 million litres of untreated sewage into the ocean every day.
Map of Proposed Pipeline

Plan of proposed scheme for sewerage and sewage disposal for the Municipality of Green Point and Sea Point, South Africa, 1891 (scheme proposed by Engineer C. Dunscombe). University of Cape Town. Libraries. Special Collections. Cape of Good Hope Parliamentary Papers

What this account of the development of the Green Point outfall reveals more than anything else is the remarkable consistency in the Council’s approach to the disposal of sewage. At no point since its completion in 1905, has the Council seriously considered an alternative approach”. Neil Overy 

Overy’s research goes on to describe how the narrative clearly features the problem of technological lock-in. As the costs of the outfall, the pipeline and the pump station accumulated, it became increasingly difficult to abandon it in favour of alternatives. 

Since the system was constructed the city has grown astronomically, and the systems just cannot handle the volume of sewage. Sewage is an unfortunate by-product of urbanisation, but the City Council has persistently trusted the ability of the sea to make sewage disappear. 

Even in 1895, City Engineer Olive states ‘it is pretty generally accepted that raw sewage cannot be disposed of anywhere without risk of nuisance … it is certain that at some future time it will make its presence felt’.

Faeces on the beach

Alleged Sewage Pollution of Beach: JW Yolland versus City Council, 1929. Photographic evidence for March 1929 Supreme Court Case (Cape Archives).

Greenpoint 1955

How does it look today?

In March 2020, The City of Cape Town released a long-awaited report titled ‘Know your Coast’, revealing annual results from 2015 to 2019 at 90 testing sites where the City collects samples. This is the first report available to the public on coastal water quality since 2013, when the City stopped presenting the water quality results to sub-councils.

Three Anchor Bay is rated “poor” every year except in 2016, when it was rated “fair”. The report claims that the pollution here is caused by fats and oils caused by fats and oils illegally poured down the stormwater system, which terminates at the bay. It goes on to state it is “unlikely that poor water quality at Three Anchor Bay is the result of the Green Point marine outfall” which pushes about 40 million litres of sieved sewage into the ocean every day.

Sewage plumes off the coast of Greenpoint. Photo: Jean Tresfon

The presence of Emerging Contaminants (ECs), such as perfluorinated compounds, diclofenac and bisphenol A in seawater samples, marine biota as well as beach sand and sediments at Green Point provides indisputable evidence that the pollutants have come through human bodies, and are not sufficiently diluted and dispersed by ocean currents with minimal effect on marine ecosystem.

These contaminants have also been found along the False Bay coastline into which flow several rivers that carry effluent from City of Cape Town operated wastewater treatment facilities. This offers compelling evidence that wastewater treatment standards are not adequate to remove Emerging Contaminants, which are bioaccumulating in fish. That study can be found here.

These results illustrate that the conventional wastewater treatment route and marine sewage outfalls are not adequate for the treatment and disposal of ECs. Many of these ECs have been developed by scientists to withstand harsh conditions (temperatures, pH, etc.) and are biochemically effective at low doses. As such, these chemicals are likely to persist in the environment for long periods of time.

What are you putting in the water?